An international research team led by Takuma Izumi, an assistant professor at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, has observed in high resolution (approximately 1 light year) the active galactic nucleus of the Circinus Galaxy -- one of the closest major galaxies to the Milky Way. The observation was made possible by the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) astronomical observatory in Chile.

This breakthrough marks the world's first quantitative measurement at this scale of gas flows and their structures of a nearby supermassive black hole in all phase gases, including plasma, atomic, and molecular. Such high resolution allowed the team to team to capture the accretion flow heading towards the supermassive black hole, revealing that this accretion flow is generated by a physical mechanism known as 'gravitational instability.' Furthermore, the team also found that a significant portion of this accretion flow does not contribute to the growth of the black hole. Instead, most of the gas is expelled from the vicinity of the black hole as atomic or molecular outflows, and returns to the gas disk to participate again into an accretion flow towards the black hole, much like how water gets recycled in a water fountain. These findings represent a crucial advancement towards a greater understanding of the growth mechanisms of supermassive black holes.

These observation results were published in Science on November 2, 2023.

'Supermassive black holes,' with masses exceeding a million times that of the Sun, exist at the centers of many galaxies. But astronomers have long pondered the mechanisms responsible their formation. One proposed mechanism, as outlined in previous research, suggests that gas accretes onto the black hole as it gravitates towards the center of the host galaxy.

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